No one could have predicted the speed or sheer height of Heaps Normal’s success. Since launching 18 months ago, the non-alcoholic brewery has found its way into more than 2000 cafes, bars, pubs, restaurants and bottle shops around Australia, including giant retailers Dan Murphy’s, BWS, Liquorland and First Choice Liquor. At smaller craft retailers like Melbourne’s Blackhearts & Sparrows and Sydney’s P&V, the brewery’s sole product, the Quiet XPA, has become the bestselling beer of any kind.
Last year this groundswell of public support led eager investors to tip $1.3 million, then a further $8.5 million, into the brand, which remains independent and in the hands of its four founders: strategist Andy Miller, designer Pete Brennan, brewer Ben Holdstock (formerly of Sydney’s 4 Pines and The Grifter) and pro surfer Jordy Smith.
But this is just the beginning. Alongside names such as Sobah, Australia’s first non-alcoholic brewery; Sydney’s Nort, a spinoff of Modus Operandi; Melbourne’s Upflow; and US/UK imports Athletic Brewing and Big Drop, Heaps Normal wants to improve Australia’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol. And not just in the small-ish craft sector, which makes up just 12 per cent of the market by volume.
“We think Australia is ready for a shift in its drinking culture,” Miller says.
Launched today, Heaps Normal’s relatively familiar-tasting Another Lager is the brewery’s best shot at making it happen. Brewed with a classic German lager hop, Hallertau, and a famously mild local variety, Ella, it straddles the line between European and Australian lager and finishes with the cleanliness typical of the style.
“Over the past 18 months we’ve had so many people come to us at festivals and write to us on social media and email saying that they’re looking for an alternative to the big mainstream lagers,” Miller says, “that they’re missing that flavour in the non-alc space.”
There are numerous ways independent or “craft” beer differentiates itself from what came before. The simplest is that craft beers tend to be ales, brewed with ale yeast. Your Carlton Draughts, Victoria Bitters, XXXX Golds, Great Northerns, Heinekens, Coronas, Peronis and Asahis – they’re all lagers, brewed with lager yeast.
The people who favour these brands are often resistant or outright hostile towards craft beer, with its pretentious undercurrent and insistence on making everything taste like flowers (hops). While the likes of Carlton Zero, Great Northern Zero, Peroni Libera and Heineken 0.0 have done great work normalising non-alc beer among this crowd, getting them onto a non-alc craft beer might be tougher. A lager is the only way to go.
It took Holdstock about six months to develop the recipe, which he says was a real challenge: “Lager is a far more delicate style [than ale], with no dry hopping and way less hop character. So any flavours in the beer that aren’t meant to be there have nothing to hide behind.” Small additions of wheat, oats and the non-fermentable sugar maltodextrin work to improve the beer’s mouthfeel and finish.
Another Lager is available from today through Heaps Normal’s website or independent retailers, which are getting stock a month ahead of the big chains.
“Part of fulfilling our mission to change drinking culture is being in those places where lots of people buy their beer,” Miller says. “It’s important that we’re there, but we’re also putting a lot of energy into supporting independent, as an independent business ourselves.”
Later this year the team plans to open a brewery and taproom of its own in Sydney’s inner west, among several of Australia’s leading alcoholic breweries.
There’s also talk of getting Heaps Normal beers on tap at pubs, but there’s a technical challenge: non-alcoholic beer freezes more easily than its boozy counterpart. Run it through a normal draught system, which is calibrated to serve beer as cold as possible, and it’s liable to turn to slush.
When this is overcome, it could be a real turning point in Australia’s drinking culture. Without asking, it’ll be impossible to tell who’s having alcoholic beer and who’s not. But even this isn’t enough for Miller.
“We want to take that next step, from, ‘You don’t have to tell anyone that it’s non-alcoholic’ to ‘You’re not gonna know that it’s non-alcoholic,’” he says. “You’re gonna drink this beer and enjoy it and you don’t have to convince yourself that you’re enjoying it and that it’s a ‘real’ beer. It just tastes like one of your favourite beers. That’s the real measure for us.”